Corporate reforms will not create excellent schools

Increase competitiveness.

Focus on maximizing short-term output over long-term investment.

Layoff workers.

Squeeze more productivity from the remaining beleaguered workforce.

Demonize unions that oppose the changes.

And when the enterprise collapses, shut it down and outsource the work.

Sound familiar? 

This is not just the recipe for the current global financial crisis and economic meltdown.  It is the same corporate model that is driving much of what passes for education reform these days.

It is a corporate model that prioritizes short-term production and profits - call them higher test scores - over long term investment.

A model that focuses on outputs and accountability more than inputs - the economic, social and cultural context within which we try to educate children.

A model that equates workers joining together to negotiate fair contracts with their employers in good faith as something evil and to be feared, rather than the fundamental foundation for democratic debate and cooperation. 

A model that lays off workers at the same time insisting that they are the most valued 'asset.'

And it is a corporate model that deskills education and applies economic rationalization (Taylorization) to pedagogical practice, rather than supporting and promoting what creates a team of highly motivated, collaborative, and skilled educators. 

This model hasn't worked so well for our economic well-being, nor do I suspect it holds much promise for our educational health, either. 

This is not to say that there are not real problems facing our public schools.  Too many students fall through the cracks.  The achievement gap between white students and students of color is alarming.  And too many students (although it must be said it is still a relatively small percentage overall) leave school ill-prepared to succeed.  But these are merely descriptions of impact, the symptoms caused by a problem, not the problem itself.  And as Dr. Lowell Levin has said, "Whoever defines the problem controls the range of solutions."

On a flight to Boston this past year I sat next to an apparently high priced lawyer who was flying home after representing a student at a private school.  We started to talk about education and quickly shifted to education reform.  This attorney complained that it was incomprehensible to him why teachers opposed being tested on their subject matter to determine whether they were competent to teach.  "If they are scared to be tested because they will fail, no wonder we are having such problems in the schools," he lamented.

There are so many things wrong with his statement, but what I asked back was whether he thought the reason we were having "such troubles" in the schools was because the third grade teacher didn't know as much as her third graders.  He admitted they knew more.  "Why then," I asked, "did they need to be tested on content?"

Many of the current reformers define the problem as a lack of accountability, inadequately trained or incompetent teachers, a public school monopoly that restricts competitionrecalcitrant unions, or poorly structured schools.

The solutions then become almost self-evident: deliver rewards and sanctions based on increased testing and reporting; fire teachers or proscriptively prescribe how they should teach; break public school "monopoly status" through charter schools and vouchers; attack unions and either cow them into silence and acquiescence or put them in the impossible situation of choosing to defend their members (their legal obligation) over securing desperately needed "reform designated money"; restructure schools by centralizing control and imposing draconian personnel reshuffles with the same layoffs, job insecurity, job combination, increased workload, dislocation, instability and stress that accompany draconian restructurings in any private sector business.

And for what real end?

Test scores may go up in the short term, perhaps - but so do short term profits in most corporate restructurings. 

The question is whether there is better teaching and learning?  Are students better equipped to lead successful lives in a rapidly changing world?  Are they more engaged democratic and global citizens?  Have they grown and developed into more full human beings?  Have they learned critical thinking and content other than literacy and math?   Beyond the anecdotal, heroic individual success stories the answer is almost always "no."

The problem with many education change initiatives are that they adopt unquestioningly the basic tenets of free-market fundamentalism and its corporate model that focuses on maximizing outputs without attention to making sure the inputs are right.  They narrow the focus of education just at the time it needs to be broadened.  And they erase the act of teaching and the culture that supports and nurtures it, just as corporate America routinely erases the lives, work, and communities of the workers who make our products.  (If you doubt this, recall how vociferously labeling laws and anti-sweatshop monitoring are fought by industry.)   

So what is the problem?

What truly impacts a child's ability to learn?

And what is currently working?

Certainly there are teachers that shouldn't be teaching, and there are unions that are stuck in models of operating that no longer make sense, just as there are incompetent and self-serving elected officials that shouldn't be in office, CEO's who shouldn't be running a business, parents who shouldn't be parenting, and foundations that promote extreme self-interest under the guise of the public good. 

The problem is not poorly skilled teachers or obstructionist teacher unions.  Poverty, violence, a culture of hopelessness and underachievement, lack of parental support - or no parents at all - the lack of health care, racism, deteriorating schools, and teachers and principals who have given up hope after having been asked to do the impossible are all far more likely to impact teaching and learning.  Schools are being asked to mitigate a series of social ills that are far beyond their scope or ability to address.  They are asked to heal catastrophic illness with Band-Aids. 

Rather than deal with these larger economic, social and cultural issues, which are far messier and could severely challenge the economic and political powers that created them, many of the corporate education reformers are content to focus on finding someone to blame, or on building intricate systems of goals and accountabilities, or simply restructuring the enterprise. 

So what creates better learning outcomes and a culture of success? A drive to learn and teach?  A sense of optimism and hope?

There are a number of lessons that we can learn from Finland, whose schools are now vaunted as some of the most successful in the world after languishing in mediocrity for much of the last century. 

Their magical turnaround relies on no magic at all: Finland addresses poverty, lack of housing and health care as part of a national provision of social benefits.  Then they start with what drives a child to want to learn (for every kid is born hard-wired wanting to learn) and what inspires teachers to excel at teaching.

Hint: It isn't through narrowing the curriculum to focus more rigorously on core subjects.  Nor is it to create more structured days, or more accountability to a unified curriculum, or more testing, or performance pay for teachers, or any of the myriad of other palliatives being offered up in the United States. 

Rather, elementary school children in Finland play a lot.  They spend 75 minutes a day in recess, compared to about 25 minutes a day for American children.  They do mandatory art, music, and crafts classes, which become venues for learning math, science and reading.  Class sizes are small, and in high school science they are kept to 16 students to emphasize lab based activities.   Finnish children learn by doing.  Learning is exciting and fun, not the relentless drills on how to take multiple choice tests that many U.S. children endure. 

Teaching is not only a highly respected profession in Finland, but a highly sought after and competitive one.  Teachers must achieve the equivalent of a Masters degree before being hired and then they are paid well.  Finnish teachers are almost 100% organized in strong unions and they make about 105% of what their non-teaching counterparts earn with the same education, compared to about 70% for the United States.  

Finland uses national core standards as guidelines (rather than prescriptions) for teachers planning their curriculum, and schools are staffed so teachers have time during their day to create curriculum, plan collaboratively and discuss challenging questions around teaching and learning. 

Students are tested, but tests are used diagnostically, instead of being wielded as high stakes judgments to reward or punish schools and instructors. 

This creative teaching and learning environment is the high octane juice that fuels excellence.  The result: highly qualified, highly motivated, highly innovative teachers who are allowed to do what they do best - teach kids.       

Is this approach to reform cheap? - No.   But we have already seen the results of the cheap corporate turnaround models applied to public education: the quick grab for instant results, consultant driven panaceas, and the myopic narrowing of learning to higher reading and math scores.

This is exactly the same short-term focus and restructuring that corporate America has pursued for the past three decades - merge, restructure, privatize, layoff, scapegoat and outsource - with dismal consequences. 

Free market fundamentalism didn't work for our economy or for workers and our communities; there is little reason to hope that this same corporate approach will produce anything better for our schools and children.

Erik Peterson is Director of Education / Labor Program Director for Wellstone Action.